Britain's government will set out details for a new law barring the entry of asylum seekers to the UK in small boats, a proposal that some refugee charities say could be impractical and criminalize the efforts of thousands of genuine refugees.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping boat arrivals one of his five key priorities after the number of migrants arriving on the south coast of England soared to more than 45,000 last year, with around 90% applying for asylum.
The new legislation will mean anyone who arrives on small boats will be prevented from claiming asylum and deported to so-called safe third countries, Sunak wrote in an article in The Sun tabloid newspaper on Tuesday.
The Refugee Council charity said tens of thousands of genuine refugees who would previously have been granted asylum would be "locked up like criminals" under the plans, which would "shatter" Britain’s commitments under the U.N. refugee convention.
The convention provides an avenue for a fair hearing for asylum seekers, no matter how they arrived in a country.
Anger over immigration in some areas has played a defining role in British politics over the last decade and was deployed successfully by campaigners as a tool to fuel support for Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum.
"Those arriving on small boats aren’t directly fleeing a war-torn country or facing an imminent threat to life. Instead, they have travelled through safe, European countries before crossing the Channel," Sunak said in the article.
"The fact that they can do so is unfair on those who come here legally and enough is enough."
Just under two-thirds of those who arrive on small boats are granted asylum or another form of humanitarian protection, Home Office figures show.
While the number of applications for asylum in the UK hit a 20-year high of nearly 75,000 in 2022, it is still below the European Union average. Germany received more than 240,000 asylum applications last year.
Opposition parties and charities have questioned whether the latest plans would be any more effective than previous attempts to deter people from making the Channel crossing, which has proved profitable for human traffickers and perilous for migrants. Four drowned in December when their boat capsized.
There are huge practical and legal issues to the government's proposals, including where migrants can be deported to if they cannot claim asylum. The new legislation will also likely face legal challenges.
Sunak is trying to build a reputation as a leader who by mastering the detail can fix complex problems that have eluded his predecessors. But his comments about the new immigration plans have raised expectations that this will effectively end small-boat crossings.
Controlling immigration was the third-most important issue for voters after the economy and the running of the health service, polling by YouGov found in November, with 87% of the public saying the government was handling the issue badly.
Last year, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed a deal to send tens of thousands of migrants — many having made the journey from Afghanistan, Syria or other countries torn apart by conflict — more than 6,400 kilometers away, to Rwanda.
But the first planned deportation flight was blocked in June by a last-minute injunction granted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and the strategy's lawfulness was subsequently challenged at London's High Court.
Rwanda only had one hostel to accept UK arrivals last year, with the capacity for 100 people, a fraction of those who arrive in the UK on small boats.
The court ruled it lawful in December, but opponents are seeking to appeal that verdict. It is expected the legal battle will end up in the UK Supreme Court and may not be resolved for months.
Sunak will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, possibly seeking further cooperation in tackling the gangs involved in cross-Channel people smuggling.